The Associates gave good title: ‘Tell Me It’s Easter On Friday’, ‘Kitchen Person’, ‘White Car In Germany’, ‘Q Quarters’, ‘No’, ‘Those First Impressions’, ’18 Carat Love Affair’, ‘Nude Spoons’, ‘Party Fears Two’ etc. etc.
The first four appeared on Fourth Drawer Down, released 40 years ago this weekend.
Mostly co-produced by 19-year-old Flood (Depeche Mode, U2), it was a collection of the increasingly bizarre singles released by the ‘band’ during 1981, all of which featured strongly on the Independent charts.
The Associates were yet another impressive 1980s pop duo, at least in their early incarnation. Billy Mackenzie was arguably the greatest singer of the post-punk era, while Alan Rankine was a key guitarist (and talented multi-instrumentalist) alongside John McGeoch, Charlie Burchill, Will Sergeant et al.
They were also arch music-biz pranksters, years before The KLF, good-looking, talented lads milking the record companies for all they were worth.
Newly departed from Fiction Records, with ex-Cure bassist Michael Dempsey in tow, the three spent 1981 holed up in their St John’s Wood flat by day and Willesden’s Morgan (later Battery) Studios by night.
If taken in an amount just over their recommended dose, Quiet Life (also an ‘influence’ on David Sylvian/Japan?) health tablets would give a nice buzz, found in the ‘fourth drawer down’ of their bedroom cabinet.
It was a hedonistic, musically expansive period. Experimentation was king. It wasn’t unusual to see Billy singing down a vacuum tube or through tracing paper, while Rankine occasionally applied a water-filled balloon to his guitar strings.
Vintage synths were layered with dulcimer, xylophone, early drum machines, ‘funky’ bass and mad fuzz-toned guitar. It was a brittle, lo-fi sound, influenced by Bowie, Roxy, Sparks, Ennio Morricone and John Barry, quite insane in places.
The scary, majestic ‘White Car In Germany’ was the logical conclusion to all of that icy, post-Heroes Euro-grandeur, but is it a pastiche? ‘Lisp your way through Zurich/Walk on eggs in Munich’, croons Billy. It’s impossible to say, but that’s part of the fun.
The brilliant ‘Q Quarters’ is strongly reminiscent of Scott Walker’s ‘70s/’80s soundworld, and comes complete with Billy’s coughing solo. Superbly chaotic ‘The Associate’ is invaded by a screaming fit and what sounds like a major vacuum-cleaner malfunction.
Some of it may remind one of early Cocteau Twins (particularly Mackenzie’s strident vocals and oblique lyrics), early Suede and the work of Frankie Goes To Hollywood and Propaganda from later in the decade (Trevor Horn apparently almost produced a solo Mackenzie album around 1987, sadly yet another what-if in this gifted artist’s short life).
Less than a year later, aided by some more streamlined material, Warners money and the excellent producer Mike Hedges (who also worked on ‘White Car In Germany’ and ‘The Associate’), they spent nine months as bona fide pop stars in the UK.
But nothing ever sounded as singular as Fourth Drawer Down. And don’t miss out on the wacky B-sides, newly added to the remastered 2-CD version. Also worth checking out is their extraordinary Peel Session from April 1981.
Further reading: ‘The Glamour Chase’ by Tom Doyle
‘Rip It Up’ by Simon Reynolds